National baseball writers can rarely afford to spend a great deal of time focusing on one specific team, instead having to spread their coverage over all 30 major league teams. That's one of the reasons I was so excited when I learned that Buster Olney, one of ESPN's senior baseball writers, wanted to answer some questions about the Braves for Talking Chop.
Olney and I discussed the Braves' bats and pitching at length over a twenty minute interview. These are his thoughts on Atlanta's offense so far this year.
Talking Chop: Let's start off with one of the hottest topics in baseball right now: Justin Upton. Although we're only three weeks into the season, Upton looks every bit like the MVP contender that Frank Wren envisioned when he shipped Martin Prado off to Arizona. What are your thoughts on that trade? Did Arizona give up too soon on a guy of Upton's talents, or was he never going to be able to live up to his full potential there?
Buster Olney: I don't blame Arizona for making the trade when they made the trade. I think it was the right decision for them to trade him during the course of the wintertime, because I think it had become fairly clear that it was time for Justin to be moved out of there. It wasn't going to be a happy situation there, and the relationship between the player and the team had really regressed.
I do have a lot of questions about how Arizona handled him during his time with the team. And I don't know him as well as a lot of other people know him, but I know from talking with friends of his and people around him they think of him as being a very thoughtful and sensitive guy. And with that in mind, it's really surprising that he was even criticized mildly when he was there, most notably by Ken Kendrick the owner in that radio interview. I think at the time of the trade that people felt like Arizona squandered a lot of value in terms of what Justin could be - their handling of him did not go well, and they paid the price for it in what they got in the trade.
Talking Chop: Moving on to the other Braves player causing a ton of buzz in the early going: I'd like to know what you think of Evan Gattis. More specifically, what do you think the Braves will do with him when Brian McCann returns? Does he drop back to a bench role? Could he potentially platoon with McCann?
Buster Olney: It's an interesting question. At some point they're going to have to deal with it head on, and they don't have to do it now because McCann is just starting his rehab assignment but I do think that the #1 priority if I'm the Braves is that I need Evan Gattis to play. I need him to get some at-bats.
One of the things that we're seeing is that the league is adjusting to him because it's now common knowledge that if you throw a fastball on the inner half of the plate, he's going to crush it. So what we've seen here the last ten days is a ton of soft stuff away. And if he's not playing, or if he's playing as a part-time player, he's not necessarily going to be able to attack that.
My guess is that they'll try to carve out some sort of role in terms of being one of the catchers and getting time elsewhere, but it's tough. When you look at the composition of the roster, first off, Ramiro Pena has done a terrific job. They're obviously going to keep him. I think Jordan Schafer has done a nice job, Reed Johnson has done a nice job so far. And it feels easy to say Gerald Laird could be out, because it's only a one year deal. And it's possible that they could do that, but it's really tough for any organization to squander veteran value like that early in the year. If the season goes along and Gerald Laird hits zero then it makes it easier to do something like that, but I kinda wonder if everything holds where we see it now and they don't have other injury situations, I would guess they would send Gattis to the minor leagues so he can play.
Talking Chop: It's interesting because the Braves are really starting to promote him now too: He's on the banners on the website, they're talking about "Gattitude" which is their answer to "Natitude", and he's on billboards around Atlanta. Do you think they're making a decision to send him down harder on themselves?
Buster Olney: Oh, they're facing one of the toughest decisions, unless injuries solve it for them. You know, if Laird got dinged up then it's made easy for you. And there is that element of the story that everyone has fallen in love with, including myself. But, in terms of the development of the player, if it was any other rookie it would be a fairly simply decision. But, I think, because he's such an interesting guy, the story has become part of the equation when they make this decision.
Talking Chop: One of the Braves' biggest questions during the offseason was who would replace Michael Bourn as the leadoff man? Through 21 games, Fredi Gonzalez has already used 3 different batters – Andrelton Simmons, B.J. Upton, and Ramiro Pena – leading off. Who do you think will be the Braves' best option at the top of the order for the rest of the season?
Buster Olney: In my opinion, after he comes back, it'll be Jason Heyward. I think the bottom line is that they don't have a perfect guy until Simmons really establishes himself offensively. And if you look at B.J. during his time with Tampa Bay, he demonstrated that he wasn't really a leadoff guy. So he's not the guy. Uggla's not the guy. You're not gonna put Justin there. Freeman? No. Third baseman? No. And you do want some speed there, so I think at some point, because Heyward is probably their best baserunner and one of the higher on-base percentage guys, he might be someone you take a look at.
Talking Chop: So, as a follow up to that question, if you put Jason in the leadoff spot, who takes his place in the two hole?
Buster Olney: This is not necessarily how Fredi would do it; I guess it's more of a sabermetric view of it where I want to get the most at-bats for my best hitters. I wouldn't hesitate at all to go Jason one, Justin two, Freeman three, on down the line. You're basically stacking up your best guys at the top because, again, you don't have a perfect solution at leadoff. I'd rather put a guy with a .380 on-base percentage in Jason in the leadoff spot, and in order to keep the left-right-left thing going, stack up Justin behind him because they have that kind of depth. You could go McCann hitting fifth, pick the hottest of your right-handed hitters - B.J., Johnson, Uggla - to hit behind Freddie. But I don't think they would ever do that.
Talking Chop: I have a feeling I know how you're going to answer this, but prior to his appendectomy, Jason Heyward was causing a good deal of debate in Braves country, with some preaching patience after his slow start and some starting to worry. Where do you come down on this?
Buster Olney: Patience. I think he's getting better as a player. I think his maturity level is really climbing off the charts, he's just off to a slow start. He's a tall guy and I've heard so many stories through the years covering baseball of taller guys having a more laborious effort to get through a slump because they have more moving parts - their swing is longer. The good thing for him is that he's generally such a patient hitter that he's going to give himself a chance.
Thanks again to Buster Olney for sitting down to talk with Talking Chop. The latter half of our interview, in which we talk pitching, will be up tomorrow.
You can follow Buster on Twitter @Buster_ESPN